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Tennyson’s “The Lotos Eaters” – A wonderful meditation on human predicament

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 6, 2013

LotoseatersMy real need for a deeper familiarization with Greek and Roman mythology hit me when I first encountered W.H.Auden’s brilliant poem “Under Which Lyre”. The poem’s attraction to me lay not only in Auden’s genius for painting a wonderful picture of the return of war veterans back to Harvard for furthering their education but also in juxtaposing their behaviour and psychological orientation with that of various Greek and Roman Gods. During my first reading of this poem, a large part of it was completely lost on me. Yet something kept telling me that there are aspects of this poem that are deeply attractive and inherently beautiful and the handicap of not knowing the context of mythology was coming between me and enjoying the poem in its entirety. By a happy accident a part of this knowledge gap got filled up after I attended a 10 week course on Greek and Roman Mythology on Coursera offered by that irrepressible and exuberant professor Peter Struck of Penn State University. The wholesome effect of my learning of the mythological context was deeply evident when I read Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lotos-Eaters”

In its popular usage today, “Lotus Eaters” has come to represent lazy and indolent people living a life which is care-free and devoid of work. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus and his band of tired, exhausted and home-sick mariners, after ten years of war and plunder of Troy, encounter the Lotus Eaters on an island on their way back to their homeland of Ithaca. Some of them succumb to the temptation of eating the stalk and fruits of Lotus plant and give up the desire to go home once for all in exchange for a life of languid, dreamy and painless existence.

Tennyson structures the poem into two parts. The first part quickly explains the story as it is and ends with the declaration of the desire of the newly proselytized Lotos-Eaters to stay back where they are:

They sat them down upon the yellow sand,
Between the sun and moon upon the shore;
And sweet it was to dream of Fatherland,
Of child, and wife, and slave; but evermore
Most weary seem’d the sea, weary the oar,
Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.
Then someone said, “We will return no more;”
And all at once they sang, “Our island home
Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam.”

There is a touch of genius when Tennyson characterizes the ocean on which Odysseus and his band of brave men travel as “wandering fields of barren foam”

The second part of the poem is expressed as a choric song where the philosophical justification for their decision to stay put is outlined and Tennyson does it in a way that is deep, beautiful, moving and wonderfully memorable. The men arguing for staying back and not returning to Ithaca invoke the troubling sense of resignation, purposelessness and futility of human existence as justifications for their collective decision. In my view, there are three key aspects of human lives that Tennyson touches upon in his poem.

Firstly, it is the nature of work and the relation of human beings to it:

Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown;
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber’s holy balm;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
“There is no joy but calm!”—
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?


Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labor be?
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence—ripen, fall, and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.

Secondly, the poem raises interesting questions around the impact of time on family relations and the need for asserting past order in a changed situation. It has been nearly ten years since these mariners have left their homes. They are not sure what is the order in their houses now and hence the questioning of the need to revisit something dear they left long ago:

Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives
And their warm tears; but all hath suffer’d change;
For surely now our household hearths are cold,
Our sons inherit us, our looks are strange,
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.
And our great deeds, as half-forgotten things.
Is there confusion in the little isle?
Let what is broken so remain.
The Gods are hard to reconcile;
’Tis hard to settle order once again.
There is confusion worse than death,
Trouble on trouble, pain on pain,
Long labor unto aged breath,
Sore task to hearts worn out by many wars
And eyes grown dim with gazing on the pilot-stars.

Thirdly, Tennyson also touches upon the indifference of Gods and the intransigence of human fate:

On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.
For they lie beside their nectar, and the bolts are hurl’d
Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curl’d
Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world;
Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,
Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,
Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.
But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song
Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong,
Like a tale of little meaning tho’ the words are strong;
Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,
Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil,
Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil;
Till they perish and they suffer—some, ’tis whisper’d—down in hell
Suffer endless anguish, others in Elysian valleys dwell,
Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel.
Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labor in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.

 In response to each of these themes and questions the mariners raise, Tennyson offers the natural beauty, the state of utter restfulness and comfort of the land of Lotus Eaters as a countervailing consideration for justifying their decision. It is in this evocation of the natural beauty of the island that one gets to see the splendor and poetic excellence of Tennyson

If there is one thing this poem has done to me, it is that it has quietly but firmly, reasserted the utility of good poetry i.e. give a voice and words to questions that keep popping up in my mind – especially those questions which do not have the necessary and needed accuracy and comfort of words to express

On some twilight evenings, when I am alone, troubled and have the luxury of facing myself, something in me asks me these very same lines that Tennyson wrote:

What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past

..and in a very generous way the poem itself provides me with the needed answer:

All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence—ripen, fall, and cease

Need one look for more answers?

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Writers on Writing – Part 5

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 17, 2012

Of all the forms of writing, I love short stories the most for the extraordinary innovation, creativity and originality they have produced. I have a special affection for them as they give me enormous joy and relief from bouts of boredom and listlessness that are my lot from time to time. In utilitarian terms too, I like them for the advantage of modularity they carry with them. Here are some deep and brilliant insights on the craft of short story writing from three of the greatest short story writers of our times viz. William Trevor, Frank O Connor and Mavis Gallant.   ( Source: Paris Review Magazine)

INTERVIEWER: Why do you prefer the short story for your medium?

FRANK O’CONNOR: Because it’s the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry—I wrote lyric poetry for a long time, then discovered that God had not intended me to be a lyric poet, and the nearest thing to that is the short story. A novel actually requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has.

INTERVIEWER: Faulkner has said, “Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” What do you think about this?

FRANK O’CONNOR: I’d love to console myself, it’s that neat—it sounds absolutely perfect except that it implies, as from a short-story writer, that the novel is just an easy sort of thing that you slide gently into, whereas, in fact, my own experience with the novel is that it was always too difficult for me to do. At least to do a novel like Pride and Prejudice requires something more than to be a failed B.A. or a failed poet or a failed short-story writer, or a failed anything else. Creating in the novel a sense of continuing life is the thing. We don’t have that problem in the short story, where you merely suggest continuing life. In the novel, you have to create it, and that explains one of my quarrels with modern novels. Even a novel like As I Lay Dying, which I admire enormously, is not a novel at all, it’s a short story. To me a novel is something that’s built around the character of time, the nature of time, and the effects that time has on events and characters. When I see a novel that’s supposed to take place in twenty-four hours, I just wonder why the man padded out the short story.

 INTERVIEWER: Yeats said, “O’Connor is doing for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia.” What do you think of Chekhov?

 FRANK O’CONNOR: Oh, naturally I admire Chekhov extravagantly; I think every short-story writer does. He’s inimitable, a person to read and admire and worship—but never, never, never to imitate. He’s got all the most extraordinary technical devices, and the moment you start imitating him without those technical devices, you fall into a sort of rambling narrative, as I think even a good story writer like Katherine Mansfield did. She sees that Chekhov apparently constructs a story without episodic interest, so she decides that if she constructs a story without episodic interest it will be equally good. It isn’t. What she forgets is that Chekhov had a long career as a journalist, as a writer for comic magazines, writing squibs, writing vaudevilles, and he had learned the art very, very early of maintaining interest, of creating a bony structure. It’s only concealed in the later work. They think they can do without that bony structure, but they’re all wrong

 INTERVIEWER : What is your definition of a short story?

 WILLIAM TREVOR: I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.

 INTERVIEWER: You have never created a hero. Why is that?

WILLIAM TREVOR: Because I find them dull. Heroes don’t really belong in short stories. As Frank O’Connor said, “Short stories are about little people,” and I agree. I find the unheroic side of people much richer and more entertaining than black-and-white success.

 INTERVIEWER: What do you think about the state of the short story?

MAVIS GALLANT: With few exceptions, books of short stories seldom sell well. Short-story readers are a special kind of reader, like readers of poetry. Many novel readers don’t like collections of stories—I think that they dislike the frequent change of time, place and people. Of course, stories should not be read one after the other. A book of stories is not a novel. Someone once said to me, “Katherine Mansfield died before she was ready to write a novel. Perhaps she would never have been ready.” I thought that was just stupid.

INTERVIEWER: In the past you’ve said that Anton Chekhov is the writer who most strongly influenced your writing and Eudora Welty the contemporary writer you most admire. Could you elaborate?

 MAVIS GALLANT: Because one is asked the same question all the time one almost unconsciously develops answers that are passe-partout but undoubtedly incomplete. About Chekhov: I have nearly no idea what influence was brought to bear. I discovered Chekhov young, in the Constance Garnett translation. I still read him—there seems to be always some volume or other lying about with a marker in it. But the same is true of Proust. I wonder if any writer can say where an influence came in. I now think influence is almost anything one admired when young. Perhaps one was influenced without knowing it by writers one later ceased to admire. Not long ago I heard a writer say he disliked Hemingway when, in fact, his work wouldn’t exist in its present form if Hemingway had not come first. About Eudora Welty: I discovered her work in my twenties. I reread her now with the same pleasure and admiration.

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The Big Rock Candy Mountain – A Hobo’s Hymn to an Eldorado

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 18, 2012

Hoboing is an American phenomenon driven by wanderlust and economic conditions. Hobos and railroading are inseparable. In the play ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Tennessee Williams, the all powerful “Big Daddy” tells his son ‘Bricks” about the love his hobo father heaped on him despite being penniless and how he is forced to bury his father by a railway line. Some great writers like Jack London, James Michener, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac and Louis L’amour are said to have lived the lives of hobos for a period of time. Jack London, in specific has written a fantastic travelogue “The Road” describing his life as a hobo. It is one of the finest pieces of travel writing I have read so far.

I’ve first heard the classic hobo song “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” while watching Cohen brother’s movie “O Brother Where Art Though“.  It is a heartwarmingly poetic articulation of an ideal world desired by a wandering hobo. The hobo’s needs and asks are pretty simple: handouts on bushes, cigarette trees, lakes of stew and whiskey, box cars that allow them to tramp, no long hand of the law, no jails, no work, life in open air and simple comforts of life. The movie carries a rendition of the song by Hary McClintock which etches itself in the mind. An enormously appealing and joyful piece of writing replete with childlike simplicity, desire and a mild touch of sadness. The sadness arises on account of the impossibility of the desire and the element of gullibility of the hobo to pin his hope on the existence of a paradise of his imagination. A true hymn to an imagined Eldorado

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The Enchanted Muggles

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 19, 2011

 As we settled into the comfortable and plush seats of the movie theatre to watch the screening of Harry Potter – Deathly Hallows Part 2, I glanced at my two sons – who already looked gone and lost into a different world behind those largish dark 3D glasses – and a slightly supercilious thought flitted through my mind: here are two mesmerized muggle kids – addict like, excited, expectant, thrilled, thralled, soft suckers – who will remain so for a brief while to come. For over three years – ever since they have started to come into their own and asserted their limited independence – not a week went by without reference to some aspect of the fantasy world that Rowling created for them. To them the world of Harry Potter was precious. Every single twist and turn of the fascinating tale spread over seven volumes was keenly pored over. Every detail was internalized including the Latin sounding names of spells and potions. The complex but consistent and ever altering nature of relations among the key characters, the gentle twists and turns in the tale, the possible shape of things to come was regularly discussed and debated. If only they applied fifty percent of that absorbed intensity to their regular school work – things would have been different. The younger one, who could not read fully well on his own, followed the older one for information, giving the older one an opportunity to feel superior, knowledgeable and big brotherly. Even elders were reduced to kids. In a commencement address at Harvard University – the pedestal of higher learning – the segment of Rowling’s brilliant speech received claps for the longest duration when she equated them to the class of Gryffindor. Lush with imagination, originality and above all a wonderfully inventive storytelling, the tale of Harry Potter and his brave friends and acquaintances entertained a generation of kids and adults like no other books did in the recent past. That the popularity of the book was sustained by brilliant marketing and hype created by the stunning movies with their ever improving computer graphics does not and should not take away the richly deserved recognition for Rowling’s work. The sad part is that it has now come to an end – although some feeble hope has been left lingering with the initiation of circle of life of the next generation of Potters, Weaslies and Malfoys about to begin their schooling at the reconstructed and restored Hogwarts. Platform 9 ¾  – the place from which the first step to the fantasy land made has been left intact.   

However, as the curtains draw to a close, a question that remains worth pondering is – Will the Potter mania sustain with the same intensity and excitement beyond this generation of muggles? My guess is that it will not – although actually the contrary seems to have happened with similar other sagas like Tolkien’s The Lord of Rings and C.S.Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. These two fantasy sagas received a second shot in the arm through an introduction to a second generation of readers by their movie adaptations. These propellants (of movie adaptations) came nearly five to six decades after the original works swept away an older generation of readers off their feet across the western world. On a minor scale the same happened with Urusula Le Guin’s “The Earthsea Quartet” (despite some controversy on intended interpretations) and Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass”. In all these cases the spacing seems to have worked very well. On the contrary and with Potter, the intensity of hype got sustained simultaneously by the book releases and superbly entertaining movies. In that sense the twin forces of hype sustainers stand spent unless something dramatically different substitutes them to ensure a sustained interest.

 My weak imagination and dim sight does not see any substitutes on the horizon barring a generational commitment and love for the work. I do hope that this generation of muggles who supported, sustained and poured life and vitality into Rowling’s wonderful creation will have the good sense and commitment to pass it on to a next generation of little muggles

…………….. and that only time will tell

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The Usual Destiny

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 10, 2011

From the mysterious wombs of celestial silence
Unruffled by the resplendent cosmic violence
The ineluctable fates that stars oversee
Of all the mortals; be it a he or a she
Unravels a pattern which is quite common
Endlessly repeated with the down trodden
The rich and powerful get away scot free
While commoners have the usual destiny

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Writers On Writing – Part 3

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 10, 2011

The more I read, the more I am realising how hard it is to be a writer. The act of writing is not just divine inspiration alone, which of course it is, but it is also about real hardwork. Continuous working and reworking on words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters till one drops down with exhuastion, that seems to be the bulk of writing about. Here are some wonderful excerpts on the craft, form and views on the mechanics of writing from some of the well known contemporary writers. (All extracts are from interviews given by these writers to Paris Review magazine)

Thornton Wilder
I forget which of the great sonneteers said: “One line in the fourteen comes from the ceiling; the others have to be adjusted around it.” Well, likewise there are passages in every novel whose first writing is pretty much the last. But it’s the joint and cement, between those spontaneous passages, that take a great deal of rewriting

Do you think this feeling of not being at home is part of what made you into a writer?
Andrea Barrett
Sure. I’ve never known a writer who didn’t feel ill at ease in the world. Have you? We all feel unhoused in some sense. That’s part of why we write. We feel we don’t fit in, that this world is not our world, that though we may move in it, we’re not of it. Different experiences in our lives may enforce or ameliorate that, but I think if they ameliorate it totally, we stop writing. You don’t need to write a novel if you feel at home in the world. We write about the world because it doesn’t make sense to us. Through writing, maybe we can penetrate it, elucidate it, somehow make it comprehensible. If I had ever found the place where I was perfectly at home, who knows what I would have done? Maybe I would have been a biologist after all. No great loss if that had been the case, but it didn’t work out that way.

What do you start with? The arc of the story, a character?
If I’m lucky, it’s a character, but it’s usually not. It’s been all different things. It’s usually something much more amorphous than that: a strange, misty pull toward some set of material or a particular place or time or something like a landscape. Sometimes the instigator is both abstract and tiny. The story “Theories of Rain,” for example, came out of reading something about dew and how dew gets formed. That might not seed a story for someone else, but for me, it did

Why do you think people are interested in whether fiction is autobiographical?
I don’t know. I have to accept that they are, because I run into it everywhere. Writing is so personal. There’s so much of us in our fiction, whether we draw on the facts of our lives or not. Our hearts and spirits are in there—everything that’s important—it seems like this should be enough, but apparently it’s not

Is it (writing) fun?
Andrea Barrett
When a plant grows, is it fun for the plant? Fun isn’t really the right word for it. Is grass having fun? There’s a seed, you put it in dirt, water it, and shoots unfold. If it happened really fast, like with bamboo, it might be fun to watch, but is it fun for the bamboo? It’s the wrong question. Is it essential? Absolutely. Can I live without doing it? Apparently not

You’re still useful in the fifth and sixth hour (in a day where the author spends six hours in writing)?
David Mitchell
Writing describes a range of activities, like farming. Plowing virgin fields—writing new scenes—demands freshness, but there’s also polishing to be done, fact-checking, character-autobiography writing, realigning the text after you’ve made a late decision that affects earlier passages—that kind of work can be done in the fifth, sixth, and seventh hours. Sometimes, at any hour, you can receive a gift—something that’s really tight and animate and so interesting that I forget the time until my long-suffering wife begins to drop noisy hints. Writers can sound rather mystical when they talk about these things. Words like inspiration and creativity I’m really rather suspicious of, though I can’t talk about my work for more than thirty seconds without deploying them myself. Sometimes I think that creativity is a matter of seeing, or stumbling over, unobvious similarities between things—like composing a fresh metaphor, but on a more complex scale. One night in Hiroshima it occurred to me that the moon behind a certain cloud formation looked very like a painkiller dissolving in a glass of water. I didn’t work toward that simile, it was simply there: I was mugged, as it were, by the similarity between these two very different things. Literary composition can be a similar process. The writer’s real world and the writer’s fictional world are compared, and these comparisons turned into text. But other times literary composition can be a plain old slog, and nothing to do with zones or inspiration. It’s world making and the peopling of those worlds, complete with time lines and heartache

I was struck by the phrase from Ghostwritten about “an infinity of paths through the park,” which seems to describe the novel itself.
David Mitchell
The line owes a debt to Borges’s story “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Human life, Borges said, is a cascade of possible directions, and we take only one, or we perceive that we take only one—which is how novels are written, too. You start with a blank page, and the first word opens up possibilities for the second word. If your first word is Call, those second two or three could be “a doctor” or it could be “me Ishmael”. It could be “Call girls on Saturday nights generally cost more than” . . . The second sentence opens up a multitude of third sentences, and on we go through that denseness of choices taken and choices not taken, swinging our machetes

Sartre wrote an essay called “Qu’est-ce que la littérature?” What is literature for you?
Julian Barnes
There are many answers to that question. The shortest is that it’s the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts. Beyond that, literature is many things, such as delight in, and play with, language; also, a curiously intimate way of communicating with people whom you will never meet. And being a writer gives you a sense of historical community, which I feel rather weakly as a normal social being living in early twenty-first-century Britain. For example, I don’t feel any particular ties with the world of Queen Victoria, or the participants of the Civil War or the Wars of the Roses, but I do feel a very particular tie to various writers and artists who are contemporaneous with those periods and events. I think a great book—leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on— is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths—about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both—such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television. For example, even people who condemned Madame Bovary, who thought that it ought to be banned, recognized the truth of the portrait of that sort of woman, in that sort of society, which they had never encountered before in literature. That is why the novel was so dangerous. I do think that there is this central, groundbreaking veracity in literature, which is part of its grandeur. Obviously it varies according to the society. In an oppressive society the truth-telling nature of literature is of a different order, and sometimes valued more highly than other elements in a work of art

Annie Proulx
In a rough way the short story writer is to the novelist as a cabinetmaker is to a house carpenter. Although I said that the short story is a superior literary form, there are plenty of exceptions of great novels that could only be novels. All the same, the short story deserves more honor and attention than it gets. It can be a powerful reading experience. One can go back to a good one over and over and always learn something new about technique. I sometimes think it would be better in creative-writing programs if students cut their writing teeth on novels instead of short stories. Short stories are often very difficult and demanding, drawing on deep knowledge of human nature and the particulars of pivotal events. Every single word counts heavily. The punctuation is critical. Finding the right words and making honorable sentences takes time. The general reading public has no idea of what goes into a short story because it is literally short and can give the impression that the writer sat down and rattled the thing out in an hour or two. A lot of the work I do is taking the bare sentence that says what you sort of want to say—which is where a lot of writers stop—and making it into an arching kind of thing that has both strength and beauty. And that is where the sweat comes in. That can take a long time and many revisions. A single sentence, particularly a long, involved one, can carry a story forward. I put a lot of time into them. Carefully constructed sentences cast a tint of indefinable substance over a story. There is difficulty involved in going from the basic sentence that’s headed in the right direction to making a fine sentence. But it’s a joyous task. It’s hard, but it’s joyous. Being raised rural, I think work is its own satisfaction. It’s not seen as onerous, or a dreadful fate. It’s like building a mill or a bridge or sewing a fine garment or chopping wood—there’s a pleasure in constructing something that really works

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The Ballad of Reading Gaol – Oscar Wilde

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 20, 2009

It was Eliot who once made the profound observation that genuine poetry can communicate even before it is understood. Poetry touches and tugs deep slumbering feelings and emotions that we are not even conscious of. Through this touching and tugging, the reader is transported into a plane where the incomplete aspects of ones self awareness start to become complete. It is this inexplicable fulfilment and stirring that is so appealing in poetry. Poetry therefore to me is the precious medium through which the specificity of an incident, an observation, a scenery or landscape starts to acquire a transcendental dimension appreciated by people who are not even remotely connected to these subject matters. I also believe that no subject matter is undeserving of being treated in poetical terms – else how can a bleak subject like the experience of watching the hanging of a murderer prompt Oscar Wilde into writing that wonderful poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” ?

I have come across a snippet of this poem while reading William Woodruffe’s “Beyond Nab End” and ever since wanted to read the poem in its totality. It is only in the recent past that I managed to complete the reading. Having read it once, I could not restrain myself re-reading it. Trooper Charles Thomas Wooldridge (CTW) had been found guilty of slitting his wife’s throat with a razor and was someone whom Wilde had seen many times during his imprisonment. It is his hanging that prompted Wilde to pen this ballad. Poetry is said to be an orphan of silence and that the words never quite equal the experience behind them. At least in the case of this poem it does not appear true

Wilde is a master of mixing the ordinary with the ethereal and in the process jolts us to reality and immediately after jolting us to reality he then again transports us into the ethereal. Consider the following stanzas where the reader falls from one end to the other:

I walked, with other souls in pain,
  Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
  A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
  “That fellows got to swing.”

There is an element of spookiness in the way the reader gets jolted out of the author’s reverie to face the harsh reality of a hanging. Similar to that is the stanza below where one moves away suddenly from life’s finery to the spectre of the gallows:

It is sweet to dance to violins
  When Love and Life are fair:
To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes
  Is delicate and rare:
But it is not sweet with nimble feet
  To dance upon the air!

Following this Wilde makes a profound observation when he writes:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
  By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
  Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
  The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
  And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
  Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
  The dead so soon grow cold.

Wilde is a keen observer especially of CTW and his every action in the prison.This becomes evident in the following stanzas:

He did not wring his hands, as do
  Those witless men who dare
To try to rear the changeling Hope
  In the cave of black Despair:
He only looked upon the sun,
  And drank the morning air.

He did not wring his hands nor weep,
  Nor did he peek or pine,
But he drank the air as though it held
  Some healthful anodyne;
With open mouth he drank the sun
  As though it had been wine!

The evocation of  the condition of the prisoners is heartfelt, complete, horrifying and deeply accurate. There is an element of a military drill to the words that describe this:

We tore the tarry rope to shreds
  With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
  And cleaned the shining rails:
And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
  And clattered with the pails.

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
  We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
  And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
  Terror was lying still.


Each narrow cell in which we dwell
  Is foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
  Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
  In Humanity’s machine.

Wilde at on place personifies the impending death of CTW as an act in the hands of an “agent of death” and says the following which I think only a great poet can say

He did not pass in purple pomp,
  Nor ride a moon-white steed.
Three yards of cord and a sliding board
  Are all the gallows’ need:
So with rope of shame the Herald came
  To do the secret deed

Wilde at many places use his poem as a platform to condemn the behaviour of the prison system, the authorities and the overall justice system and one cannot but be pensive at the state of affairs.

For Man’s grim Justice goes its way,
  And will not swerve aside:
It slays the weak, it slays the strong,
  It has a deadly stride:
With iron heel it slays the strong,
  The monstrous parricide!
But this I know, that every Law
  That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother’s life,
  And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
  With a most evil fan.

This too I know–and wise it were
  If each could know the same–
That every prison that men build
  Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
  How men their brothers maim.

As I read these lines I kept thinking if anything has changed since then…..or

The Warders strutted up and down,
  And kept their herd of brutes,
Their uniforms were spick and span,
  And they wore their Sunday suits,
But we knew the work they had been at
  By the quicklime on their boots

The hanging of CTW is complete and he is now burried and Wilde makes this brilliantly moving observation on the barrenness of the grave

For three long years they will not sow
  Or root or seedling there:
For three long years the unblessed spot
  Will sterile be and bare,
And look upon the wondering sky
  With unreproachful stare.

(There is a very identical stanza in Hardy’s brilliant poem “Drummer Hodge”)

There are many places in this long poem that one gasps at the felicity of Wilde’s poetry. Yet in all this Wilde never forgets the critical function of poetry: that of casting a kind eye on the human predicament 

With midnight always in one’s heart,
  And twilight in one’s cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
  Each in his separate Hell,
And the silence is more awful far
  Than the sound of a brazen bell

In many ways are we all not turning our own cranks, tearing our own ropes in our separate hells?

Actually it is the first four lines of this stanza that I encountered in my reading of Woodruffe’s “Beyond Nab End” and I am delighted that I have now managed to read this gem of a poem in its completeness. Robert Frost once said that to be a poet is a condition, not a profession – taking liberties, I think this is applicable equally well to any respectful reader of poetry

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Writers on Writing – Part II

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 5, 2009

There was a brief period of madness and false hope in my life when I hoped and desired to be a writer. Thankfully, I seem to be over with it now. But now I am envious of all who can write and write well. Not a day passes by when I am not reminded by a stab of jealousy of what I could not and most probably would not be.  Although disappointed at the lack of this hoped metamorphosis, I continue to be fascinated, curious and impressed with the craft of writing. There is something divine, magical, gifted and blessed about it. Therefore, I have now decided to settle down for the next best thing – that of being a discerning reader. However, in line with my curiosity, I once in a while get hold of material that throws light on the agonies and ecstasies of the art of writing. A significant benefit of internalising these insights is that (collectively) they act as a mental compass that allows one to embark on a journey in the rough terrain of fiction. To be aware of the lay of the land prior to the commencement of the journey makes the journey bearable and hopefully pleasant –  especially when such a journey is interminable and an end in itself

Here is the second part of a collection of thoughts on the craft of writing by people who practice it –  sourced from Paris Review Magazine and Guardian

Where does the dialogue come from?
Eudora Welty
: Familiarity. Memory of the way things get said. Once you have heard certain expressions, sentences, you almost never forget them. It’s like sending a bucket down the well and it always comes up full. You don’t know you’ve remembered, but you have. And you listen for the right word, in the present, and you hear it. Once you’re into a story everything seems to apply – what you overhear on the city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you’re writing. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story. I guess you’re tuned for it, and the right things are sort magnetized — if you think your ears as magnets

What is the greatest essential of a story?
Frank O Connor: You have to have a theme, a story to tell.Here’s a man at the other side of the table and I’m talking to him; I’m going to tell him something that will interest him. As you know perfectly well, our principal difficulty at Harvard was a number of people who’d had affairs with girls or had had another interesting experience, and wanted to come in and tell about it, straight away. That is not a theme. A theme is something that is worth something to everybody. In fact, you wouldn’t, if you’d ever been involved in a thing like this, grab a man in a pub and say, “Look, I had a girl out last night,under the Charles Bridge.” That’s the last thing you’d do. You grab somebody and say, “Look, an extraordinary thing happened to me yesterday—I met a man—he said this to me—” and that, to me, is a theme. The moment you grab somebody by the lapels and you’ve got something to tell, that’s a real story. It means you want to tell him and think the story is interesting in itself. If you start describing your own personal experiences, something that’s only of interest to yourself, then you can’t express yourself, you cannot say, ultimately, what you think about human beings. The moment you say this, you’re committed. I’ll tell you what I mean. We were down on the south coast of Ireland for a holiday and we got talking to this old farmer and he said his son, who was dead now, had gone to America. He’d married an American girl and she had come over for a visit, alone. Apparently her doctor had told her a trip to Ireland would do her good. And she stayed with the parents, had gone around to see his friends and other relations, and it wasn’t till after she’d gone that they learned that the boy had died. Why didn’t she tell them? There’s your story. Dragging the reader in, making the reader a part of the story—the reader is a part of the story. You’re saying all the time, “This story is about you—de te fabula.”

That’s a very classical view of the work of art – that it must end in resolution?
Katherine Anne Porter
: Any true work of art has got to give you the feeling of reconciliation – what the Greeks would call catharsis, the purification of your mind and imagination – through an ending that is endurable because it is right and true. Oh, not in any pawky individual idea of morality or some parochial idea of right and wrong. Sometimes the end is very tragic, because it needs to be. One of the most perfect and marvelous endings in literature – it raises my hair now – is the little boy in the end of Wuthering Heights, crying that he is afraid to go across the moor because there’s a man and woman walking there

And there are three novels that I reread with pleasure and delight – three almost perfect novels, if we are talking about form you know. One is A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, one is A Passage to India by E.M.Forester, and the other is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Everyone of them begins with an apparently insoluble problem, and everyone of them works out of confusion into order. The material is all used so that you are going toward a goal. And that goal is the clearing up of disorder and confusion and wrong, to a logical and human end. I don’t mean a happy ending, because after allat the end of A High Wind in Jamaica the pirates are all hanged and the children are all marked for life by their experience, but it comes out to an orderly end. The threads are all drawn up. I have had people object to Mr.Thompson’s suicide at the end of Noon Wine, and I’d say, “All right, where was he going? Given what he was, his own situation, what else could he do?” Every once in a while when I see a character of mine just going towards perdition, I think, Stop, Stop, you can always stop and choose, you know. But no, being what he was, he already has chosen and he can’t go back on it now. I suppose the first idea that man had was the idea of fate, of the servile will, of a deity who destroyed as he would, without regard for the creature. But I think the idea of free will was the second idea

But isn’t it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with minority?
Ralph Ellison: All novels are about certain minorities. The individual is a minority. The universal in the novel – and isn’t that we’re all clamouring for these days? – is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance

What do you mean exactly by “control”?
Truman Capote: I mean maintaining a stylistic and emotional upper hand over your material. Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence – especially if it occurs towards the end – or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I dont mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all

Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique?
Truman Capote
: Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. Even Joyce, our most extreme disregarder, was a superb craftsman; he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners. Too many writers seem to consider writing the writing of short stories as a kind of finger exercise. Well, in such cases, it is certainly only their fingers they are exercising

Do you enjoy writing? What is its particular pleasure?
John Dos Passos: Well, you get a great deal off your chest – emotions, impressions, opinions. Curiosity urges you on – the driving force. What is collected must be got rid of. That’s one thing to be said of writing. There is a great sense of relief in a fat volume

John Banville: Civilisation’s greatest single invention is the sentence. In it, we can say anything. That saying, however, is difficult and peculiarly painful. Whether we are writing a novel or a letter to our bank manager, we have the eerie sensation that we are not so much writing as being written, that language in its insidious way is using us as a medium of expression and not vice versa. The struggle of writing is fraught with a specialised form of anguish, the anguish of knowing one will never get it right, that one will always fail, and that all one can hope to do is ‘fail better’, as Beckett recommends. The pleasure of writing is in the preparation, not the execution, and certainly not in the thing executed. The novelist daily at his desk eats ashes, and if occasionally he encounters a diamond he is likely to break a tooth on it. Money is necessary to pay the dentist’s bills

Amit Chaudhury: I still find it difficult to believe that I’m something called a ‘novelist’; but this hasn’t stopped me from dreaming, frequently, of alternative professions: second-hand bookshop owner; corporate worker; cinematographer. There are many reasons for this unease. One of them is a fundamental discomfort with narrative itself, and involves admitting to yourself that you derive your basic pleasure not from knowing what happens next, but from arrested time or eventlessness; this makes you constantly wish, as you’re writing, that you were elsewhere, or it makes you work to make the novel accommodate that impulse. Another reason is the professionalisation of the vocation, so that the novelist is supposed to produce novels as naturally, automatically, and regularly as a cow gives milk. In such a constraining situation, money can certainly be a compensatory pleasure; so can that paradoxical and sly addiction, failure

Joyce Carol Oates: To me, who has written for most of her adult life, in a number of genres and with wildly varying degrees of “enjoyment” and/or “misery”, it’s likely that writing is a conscious variant of a deep-motivated unconscious activity, like dreaming. Why do we dream? No one seems to really know, just as no one seems to really know why we crave stories, even or especially stories we know to be fiction. My experience of writing – of writing these very sentences, for instance – is invariably a blend of the initially “inspired” and the more exacting, or plodding, execution of inspiration. Most writers find first drafts painfully difficult, like climbing a steep stairs, the end of which isn’t in sight. Only just persevere! Eventually, you will get where you are gong, or so you hope. And when you get there, you will not ask why? – the relief you feel is but a brief breathing spell, before beginning again with another inspiration, another draft, another steep climb. “I always say, my motto is ‘Art for my sake'” – these words of the young DH Lawrence in a letter written before the first world war are probably as reliable as any

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Roald Dahl and Children’s Literature

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 10, 2008

My first exposure to Roald Dahl was as an adolescent. He was an accidental find. I remember picking up a collection of his short stories titled “Switch Bitch” from the British library at Hyderabad. The stories were wicked and tantalisingly funny with definitive adult slant and packed with enough erotic punch to dizzy an adolescent. What prompted me to lay my hands on this book of his is still unknown to me.  Although I was mightily impressed with his capacity to tell juicy stories, I somehow never made an effort to read his other stories – barring a couple of them here and there like “Parsons Pleasure” and those two classics “Taste” and “Lamb to Slaughter“.  Dahl existed in my memory as a very entertaining writer but not in a way to evoke serious exploration

Not till I reached a stage where I had to face the uncompromising demands of my children to read bed time stories did I gravitate towards the oeuvre of Roald Dahl. My children in effect have pushed me into a situation where I had no choice but to revisit him seriously. Collectively we have now read ” The Twits“, “The Witches” “The BFG“, “Matilda“, “The Vicar of Nibbleswick “, “James and the Giant Peach” , “Fantastic Mr.Fox“, “The Magic Finger“,  “Esio Trot“.  And as a coincidence, I also happened to watch a program called “The Picture Book” on BBC 4 dealing with the topic of children’s literature. It is in this series that I found a brilliant coverage on Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake (illustrations for most of his childrens books have been done by Quentin Blake)

Children’s literature is a strange world to inhabit. For all its seeming simplicity, it to my mind is a complex area. Complexity arises because of the forced need to be simple and imaginative.  Also the distance in the age and make up of the writer (who is an adult) and the reader who is young, curious, unaware,  impressionable and extremely discerning add to the difficulties of writing for children. Try and drag the narrative for a couple of pages with child readers and one gets to realise how difficult it will be to get their attention back to plod through the book. It is this ability to sustain the element of entertainment and appeal, the most challenging aspect of children literature. My initial impressions on reading Dahl were not very favourable, although puzzlingly enough, my kids were in raptures and asking for more. It took time for me to realise that the mistake was in the perspective I was adopting. I was trying to read Dahl‘s books with the eyes of an adult. I was looking for a message – a bigger and grander scheme of things and purpose.  But for my children (and I guess for all other children who read Dahl) it is an avenue for fun, entertainment and high quality adventure.  An opportunity to soar into and dwell in worlds they think exist somewhere outside their cosy homes. Children’s books ought to be read with the eyes of children.  A small volte face in outlook and the unappealing becomes the appealing. That is exactly what appears to have happened to me.

So what is it that is attractive for children in Dahl‘s books ? I think Dahl‘s writing carries with it a combination of interesting apsects. First and foremost is a delectable mixture of ordinary with the fantastic and fantasy — which leads to an element of fun, adventure and expectation. The whole sense of anticipation of what is going to happen next is a constant bait that Dahl uses quite effectively to hook kids on. Then comes the element of the winning underdog – Charlie, Matilda, James, Sophie are all nice examples of this.  Barring Matilda (who has some extraordinary mental faculties) all are normal children who are aware of their physical fraility. In some cases they are disadvantaged in a big way, i.e. they are orphaned – I think this sets the sympathies of the reading children straightaway. In general, lonesome children are the heroes and heroines of Dahl‘s books.  Adults are a mixed bag of extremes – they are either kind and understanding or outright evil and vicious. Maybe children tend to judge a majority of aspects in a two dimensional framework and hence Dahl‘s propensity to portray characters in this vein. But that is how all the fairy tales portray adults

Some of Dahl‘s books for children have a subtle element of terror and immense scope for potential wickedness which I think children find quite thrilling.  As an example, the focused plan of the “The Grand High Witch” to convert the children of England into rats through a magic potion administered through sweetshops owned by witches or the senseless wickedness of the giants to gobble children of England and other countries is scary.  However, I also think children sense even without going to the end of the book that somehow this wickedness will be managed to their satisfaction. With this assured sense of certainty in mind that no harm will come to the heroes and heroines, the curiosity element related to “what next?” and “how will it proceed?” is aroused. Dahl is a master in arousing this curiosity in children. May be that accounts for the universal fan following for him across the world. Dahl‘s control of language is unique and exquisite. There is a wonderfully twisty touch. The raves and rants of the malefactors who populate his books are so extreme that they are set up to slip into a sense of ludicrous quite naturally. Mrs.Trunchbull’s (what a name!) ranting in “Matilda” especially when she addresses children is a clear demonstration of that.  Even very young readers can easily decipher the element of humour there.  Alternately the language of the kind giant in “The BFG” where the commonly spoken english is unendingly twisted with inappropriate substitutions that one cannot but  laugh. Dahl‘s language carries an element of conscious bluster which is not only funny but also very suggestive — the snozcumbers, human beans are not very hard to make out as one reads along.  Added to all of this are the wonderfully funny poems that Dahl introduces in his stories. Rhyming, humorous, sing-song and contextual  – they are an absolute delight to any reader

One of the critical success factors in children’s literature are the illustrations and it is here that most of Dahl‘s books have benefited from the superb contributions of Quentin Blake — Willy Wonka, Trunchbull, Grand High Witch, Matilda, BFG, Sophie, Mr and Mrs.Twit  are a few of the illustrations that one can never forget

The more I read Dahl ( thank God! there is so much more to read), the more I am coming to realise that he is one of the greatest writers of children literature ever.  And as long as there are children and books to read, Dahl will be read. For adults like me who have missed out on his books during our childhoods, reading them to our children is the easiest way of experiencing glimpses of our own forgotton childhood and the joys associated with it

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Writers on Writing – Part 1

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 24, 2008

There is a mystical dimension to the craft of writing. The aura of mysticism is inherent because nobody understands the real mechanics behind writing – including the people who practise it to produce works that keep the readers in a thrall. I would be hugely disappointed if this mysticism is unravelled on some ill fated date in distant future. It is my wish that it remains an enigma and continues to confound mankind for eternity. I want the attempt of human beings to understand this mysticism assume a sort of sisyphean nature, that is, I would want us to be eternally tending towards an understanding of it and never understand it completely. There is something transcedental about writing – for the writer during the period of writing and for the reader while reading the book. Both extend beyond themselves in ways unknown to them. Everytime I read a book, a part of my reading mind is always wondering at the creative process. I am constantly obsessed with the question: how does it get done? That there are no clear answers to this is evident to me, yet I do not stop asking this question. There is a body of inspiring conversation around it in the form of writers views on writing. The originality of the thoughts of some of these writers is near numinous 

The Paris Review Magazine is one of its kind dedicated to literature.  Among others, every issue of the magazine carries a couple of interviews with a well known writer/s, poet/s or a playwright/s, dealing with the art of fiction, poetry or drama in general. Almost all of interviews are available for reading. It is while rummaging through these interviews that I started to get a peek into the views that writers hold about their profession. Here is a selection of these thoughts to enrich the content of my blogsite. These views have been sourced from The Paris Review (barring the opinions of Jhumpa Lahiri, John Irving and Graham Swift which are from Powells and Salon respectively)

Interviewer: And telling the truth is, finally, what writing is about? That wonderful quote from Montaigne about speaking the truth, not as much as you know but as much as you dare—and daring more as you grow older.
Peter Taylor: I think trying to write is a religious exercise. You are trying to understand life, and you can only get the illusion of doing it fully by writing. That is, it’s the only way I can come to understand things fully. When I create, when I put my own mark on something and form it, I begin to know the whole truth about it, how it was put together. Then you can begin to change things around. You know all this after you have written a lot. You really know. And it has become the most important thing in your life. It has nothing to do with craft, or even art, in a way. It is making sense of life. It is coming to understand yourself    
Interviewer: Which brings more “inner order,” fiction or nonfiction?
Francine du Plessix Gray
: Oh, fiction is a much mightier, more capable watchdog against the threat of inner disorder, of gibberish. I’ve given some thought to this, because I’ve a few friends who try to flatter me out of writing novels by saying “dozens of people around can do that better than you, so why not stick to nonfiction since very few writers can do it as well as you; you could be the John Gunther of your generation, blah-blah.” And so I’ve had to analyze why I’m impelled to go on writing novels, and I know it’s because even at the beginning of a fictional text, when it’s no more than a vapor, a perfume in my head, there’s a whole world hovering by me, a most protective and consoling presence

Interviewer: You have said at various times that, for you, literature is like a game. In what ways?
: For me, literature is a form of play. But I’ve always added that there are two forms of play: football, for example, which is basically a game, and then games that are very profound and serious. When children play, though they’re amusing themselves, they take it very seriously. It’s important. It’s just as serious for them now as love will be ten years from now. I remember when I was little and my parents used to say, “Okay, you’ve played enough, come take a bath now.” I found that completely idiotic, because, for me, the bath was a silly matter. It had no importance whatsoever, while playing with my friends was something serious. Literature is like that—it’s a game, but it’s a game one can put one’s life into. One can do everything for that game.

Interviewer: How does a book take shape for you?
: That’s a vast topic and, to be honest, one I barely understand. Even in the case of a naturalistic writer, who in a sense takes his subject matter directly from the world around him, it’s difficult enough to understand how a particular fiction imposes itself. But in the case of an imaginative writer, especially one like myself with strong affinities to the surrealists, I’m barely aware of what is going on. Recurrent ideas assemble themselves, obsessions solidify themselves, one generates a set of working mythologies, like tales of gold invented to inspire a crew. I assume one is dealing with a process very close to that of dreams, a set of scenarios devised to make sense of apparently irreconcilable ideas. Just as the optical centers of the brain construct a wholly artificial three-dimensional universe through which we can move effectively, so the mind as a whole creates an imaginary world that satisfactorily explains everything, as long as it is constantly updated. So the stream of novels and stories continues . . .

Interviewer: You said that language and the power of imagination were the same thing. What did you mean by that?
: That behind every word a whole world is hidden that must be imagined. Actually, every word has a great burden of memories, not only just of one person but of all mankind. Take a word such as bread, or war; take a word such as chair or bed or heaven. Behind every word is a whole world. I’m afraid that most people use words as something to throw away without sensing the burden that lies in a word. Of course, that is what is significant about poetry, or the lyric, in which this can be brought about more intensively than in prose, although prose has the same function

John Steinbeck: The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through—not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible………..Writing is a very silly business at best. There is a ridiculousness putting down a picture of life. And to add to the joke  — one must withdraw from life to set the picture down…………… Having gone through all this nonsense, what emerges may be the palest of reflections. Oh! it’s a real horse’s ass business. The mountain labours and groans and strains and the tiniest of rodents come out. And the greatest foolishness lies in the fact that to do it at all, the writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. Not that it is necessary to be remembered but there is one purpose in writing, beyond  simply doing it interestingly. It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage. If the written word has contributed anything at all to our developing species and half developed culture it is this: Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult; a wisdome to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice. And how any negative or despairing approach can pretend to be literature I do not know…… A strange and mystic business, writing. Almost, no progress has been made since it was invented. The Book of the Dead  is as good and as highly developed as anything in the 20th century and much better than the most. And yet in spite of the lack of this continuing excellence, hundreds of thousands of people are in my shoes – praying feverishly for relief from their word pangs

Interviewer: Do you enjoy writing?
William Styron
: I certainly don’t. I get a fine, warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it, writing is hell

Garcia Marquez: In One Hundred Years of Solitude I used the insomnia plague as something of a literary trick since it’s the opposite of the sleeping plague…… Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry.Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved. And as Proust, I think, said, it takes ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. I never have done any carpentry, but it’s the job I admire most, especially because you can never find anyone to do it for you

Interviewer: I noticed you call it coaching rather than teaching. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that phrase used to refer to that relationship
Barth: Coaching is more accurate. God knows whether we should be doing it in the universities at all. I happen to think there’s some justification for having courses in so-called creative writing. I know from happy experience with young writers that the muses make no distinction between undergraduates and graduate students. The muses know only expert writers and less expert writers. A beginner—such as I was when, with the swamp still on my shoes, I came into John Hopkins as an undergraduate—needs to be taught that literature is there; here are some examples of it, and here’s how the great writers do it. That’s teaching. In time, a writer, or any artist, stops making mistakes on a crude, first level, and begins making mistakes on the next, more elevated level. And then finally you begin to make your mistakes on the highest level—let’s say the upper slopes of slippery Parnassus—and it’s at that point you need coaching. Now sometimes coaching means advising the skier to come down off the advanced slope and back to the bunny hill for a while, back to the snowplow. One must be gentle about it

Interviewer: How much do you revise, generally?
Jhumpa Lahiri
: That’s really all I do. It’s all a process for me of continued revision. I worked on most of the stories in this book for several years. When I finished some, and I published some, along the way, then I considered them done, but I still worked on them for a considerable length of time, and the ones I didn’t publish, I continued to work on. Most of these stories were simmering for two to three years, minimum

John Irving: Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just as carefully imagining the truths you have not had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary strict toiling with the language; for me this means writing and rewriting sentences until they sound as spontaneous as good conversation

Graham Swift: I really do have tremendous faith in writing as a leap into the unknown. But it is a leap that you take with the sort of rope of the imagination to hang on to. The imagination is a wonderful thing: it can cross the gap between you and some experiences you have never had personally, or to some person who is entirely out of nowhere and not someone you’ve known. That’s the excitement, and of course it’s the real creative element in writing

John Cheever: Cocteau said that writing is a force of the memory that is not understood. I agree with this. Raymond Chandler described it as a direct line to sub conscious.The books you really love, give the sense, when you first open them, of having been there. It is a creation, almost like a chamber in the memory. Places that one has never been to, things that one has never seen or heard, but their fitness is so sound, that you’ve been there somehow….. Fiction is meant to illuminate, to explode, to refresh. I dont think there is any consecutive moral philosophy in fiction beyond excellence. Accuteness of feeling and velocity have always seemed to me terribly important. People look for morals in fiction because there has always been confusion between fiction and philosophy

Interviewer: Do you enjoy writing?
John Dos Passos
: That depends sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t…. Well you get a great deal off your chest – emotions, impressions, opinions. Curiosity urges you on – the driving force. What is collected must be got rid off. That’s one thing to be said about writing. There is a great sense of relief in a fat volume

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